Written By: Gabby Maj
The holidays are coming to a close and the New Year and all its subsequent resolutions fast approaching. One resolution I can really get behind came to me over the many overpriced or simply underwhelming bottles of wine being passed since Thanksgiving; that I am going to hold my wine to a higher standard. Good wine doesn’t have to be terribly expensive, and affordable wine doesn’t have to give you the undesirable physical symptoms so many of us have become familiar with and simply accepted or maybe don’t even realize are coming from the wine we are drinking! In order to implement this resolution, identifying the scope of the dilemma is critical.
Seed to plate or seed to bottle, wine production is a manifold process, just like the food we put in our bodies. Similarly, there are countless opportunities for the product to be exposed to things we absolutely do not want in our bodies, not to mention the process itself can have horrific environmental consequences. There are innumerable different strategies and traditions within the sphere of winemaking, that’s what makes each vineyard and winemaker unique, but for the sake of this piece we’ll just take general walk through the process which will highlight the many areas that are vulnerable to undesirable practices.
First order of business, we all know wine comes from grapes. Grapes require certain levels of soil nutrients, water, and space to grow. How the grapes are being planted, what nutrients (and other things) they are retrieving from the soil, how they are being watered and harvested all play a role in the outcome of the wine. Once the grapes are harvested, fermentation begins. Again, there are a variety of ways this process can be facilitated. Next is storage, depending on the wine it may be aged a long time or not very long at all. Good questions to consider regarding the storage process; Is the wine stored in a steel barrel or an oak barrel? Where did the wood come from? How did it get to the winery? You may be surprised to know that some of the wines on the shelf are artificially flavored with oak, a practice which to me is uncomfortably reminiscent of reading “natural flavors” on a box of raisins. After storage is the bottling process. You’ll notice on your bottle of wine it says “Contains Sulfites”, sulfites are essentially a preservative which occurs naturally in trace amounts in any bottle of wine, but are added in larger quantities to any wine that is to be aged. Sulfites are the known culprit of any asthma-like symptoms you may encounter after sipping on your favorite wine, but are necessary for its preservation.
So how do we go about finding wines that are cleaner for consumption and kinder to the environment? Look for wines that are either organic or produced sustainably, or both.
Organic wines will be labeled as such with the only legal certification for wine in the United States, the familiar USDA approved organic label. Organic wines have a set of criteria they must meet in order to earn the stamp that sets them and the process of making them apart from their non-organic counterparts. Organic wines must meet these criteria and the USDA is the only organization that can approve this title, unlike with sustainably produced wines, which may obtain their title from numerous organizations across the globe, with varying criteria, making the term more flexible and the sustainable wine market less standardized than the organic market, although there is overlap. Organic wines are not permitted to contain any pesticides or chemicals, instead relying on certain species of insects or other animals for controlling pests and healthy, nutrient rich soils. Clearly the fewer chemicals used, the better for the surrounding environment as well. Secondly, farmers may not use any synthetic fertilizers, which can also be replaced by biodiverse soils, compost, and cover crops to maintain healthy levels of soil nutrients. They also may not contain any added sulfites. As discussed earlier, sulfites are a preservative added to wine to allow it to age, but occur naturally in small quantities in any bottle of wine. As sulfites are necessary for wine preservation, you won’t find any USDA certified organic wines with an older vintage. While many sustainably produced wines will meet most organic criteria. because of added sulfites or perhaps another factor they cannot be officially labeled as organic. Organic wines also must not contain any more than 5% of non-agricultural products, and may not be genetically modified. A bonus of this rule is that they will have less sugar than many of our more mass-produced, commercial or value wines which contain quite a bit of added sugar to increase alcohol levels and make the flavor more palatable to a wider range of consumers.
Sustainably produced wines can be labeled so through the qualified organization of their choice, there are two main ones that exist globally, EMS (Environmental Management System) an international organization focused on waste reduction and management, and reflects the International Standardization Organization’s (ISO) evolving sustainability guidelines. The EMS is particularly prevalent in Bordeaux, Chile, and Australia. The Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW), developed by the Wine Institute and California Association of Winegrade Growers, uses a set of 100+ criteria for the certification, and offers region specific secondary certifications that winemakers can apply for in order to further distinguish their unique practices, like “Salmon Safe” as some wineries in the Pacific Northwest have earned for their sustainability models which factor the wellbeing of local salmon populations into their operations. Sustainability in the winemaking community prioritizes social responsibility, economic feasibility, water, energy, natural resource sourcing and expenditure. To work within these parameters, many practices such as drip irrigation, the use of solar energy, night harvesting, and local sourcing have been steadily gaining momentum.
Some of my favorite local stops, where I can always find the perfect bottle are Russo’s International Market, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Wealthy Street Market – the only place in Grand Rapids I can find my go-to $10 bottle made by Stellar Organics, organically produced wines out of South Africa. I highly recommend giving one a try for a pleasant, versatile table wine. If you are struggling to find something organic or sustainable in your local stores, there are a few websites I would suggest for ordering online (listed below). Shopping online for wine may seem unusual at first, but is great for shopping a wider variety of selections, the convenience of it being shipped directly to you, and the reviews!
Both organic and sustainable practices within the wine community have become more and more popular in recent years for many reasons. Not only do wines that are kinder to the body and to the environment make a clearly better choice than ones that are not, but because the movement is perpetuated by passionate individuals who care deeply for the quality of the product they produce and who must maintain a real connection to the reason behind making these adjustments in order to promote not only their product, but the ideology of interconnectedness between people and their environment, how our choices as consumers reflect our values. So the next time you are looking for the perfect bottle for any occasion, consider the journey it must make to arrive in your hands and consider factoring in what qualities resonate most with you, whether it be geared more toward the organic criteria, environmental, social, or economic criteria, or both. Regardless of which you choose, remember that good wine comes in all types and prices, all you have to do is know where to look!
Photo Credit: Gadini, Pixabay Creative Commons